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House of Commons Hansard
Redhill and Reigate Rail Users
12 January 2016
Volume 604

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Redhill and Reigate rail users.

I think this is the first time I have had the pleasure of serving under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries, and it is extremely welcome. I sought the debate on behalf of rail users in my constituency, because quite frankly they are at the end of their tether.

Many colleagues’ constituents are also adversely affected by Govia Thameslink Railway’s poor performance all along the Brighton main line, but I want to highlight the particular injustice faced by passengers using the Redhill and Reigate routes, who are not only taking the brunt of service reductions and disruptions but uniquely facing disproportionately higher fares. I seek action to rectify that double injustice faced by my constituents, which is a unique strand of the overall performance issues on the line.

When we were here six months ago to debate Southern’s performance, following last year’s catalogue of misery, I put the Minister on notice that my constituents would expect a meaningful effort to give commuters a decent level of compensation. Since then we have met and corresponded about options to provide reparations and to simplify and reduce fares, but so far we have not found a way through.

I cannot overstate the frustration and anger felt by commuters in my constituency, which is represented by the 3,300 people who signed the petition for Redhill and other stations to Gatwick to be included in Oyster zone 6. That compelling case cannot be ignored any longer.

Let me start with service reductions. The number of morning peak trains from Redhill to London Bridge has been cut from nine to four—a 55% cut. Off-peak trains to London Bridge have been cut by 50%, as have off-peak trains to Crawley and Horsham, and off-peak trains to the south coast have been axed altogether. Journey times have also increased as some trains have been moved across to the slow lines and other fast trains have been removed from the timetable or been given longer journey times, such as evening trains to Coulsdon. However, there has been no compensation or fare reduction to reflect that reduction in service levels.

Passengers recognise that service alterations are inevitable while the works to upgrade London Bridge are under way, but no one imagined that Southern, now under the Govia Thameslink Railway management contract since July, would fail so catastrophically to deliver even the reduced timetable. Indeed, reliability has deteriorated to the extent that it is barely possible to say that a functioning timetabled rail service exists. The service to and from Redhill and Reigate is a nightmare, with delays every morning and evening. Delays are being unreasonably heaped on the Redhill line. No peak evening train from London Bridge to Redhill has arrived on time since last October. Trains are on average 10 minutes late, and more than 10% of them do not run.

Overall, the Redhill route appears to get more cancellations as a proportion than any other part of the Southern network. For example, Redhill performance statistics show that just 30% of peak trains from London Bridge arrive within five minutes of schedule. By contrast, the figure is 52% for Brighton, 49% for Haywards Heath and 65% for East Grinstead.

Govia Thameslink Railway’s moving annual average public performance measure of trains “on time”—the proportion of the total number of trains planned that arrive within five minutes of the advertised arrival—stands at the lowest of all franchises, at 81.7% against a national average of 89.3%. Commuters also face the consequences of driver shortages, broken tracks and no spare rolling stock: regular cancellations, delays, short formations and last-minute station skipping, which cause untold stress for commuters. All of this—drastic cuts, chronic overcrowding and appalling reliability—has created significant discomfort and extended journey times, affecting the health and ruining the family life and quality of life of regular commuters.

There are serious questions for the Minister to answer about the specification of service delivery levels set out in the management agreement. Are they too lenient? Perhaps she can explain whether it was because of that inadequacy that the Department for Transport issued Govia Thameslink with a remedial plan notice requiring it to set out improvement measures that, once agreed with Government, will become contractually binding. Will she tell us when that will be agreed and what penalties will be able to be imposed, with a view to providing direct reparations to rail users affected by terrible service?

It is clear that, regardless of the Minister’s deep-dive examination, her performance improvement plan and her undoubted energy and engagement with colleagues, the franchise appears to be fundamentally flawed. Is she prepared to set a deadline in public for specified performance improvements in the remedial plan, which, if missed, would trigger the termination of the franchise?

There are also questions to ask about the level of services that commuters can expect once the Thameslink upgrade is completed in 2018. Are the Redhill, Reigate and other local commuters who I represent suffering all this pain now for someone else’s gain later? I invite the Minister to commit to discuss with Govia Thameslink’s management the specific timetable improvements that Redhill and Reigate rail users can look forward to. Will the future Thameslink timetable be able to improve journey times and create regular, fast services to London? Will it provide a better service than in 2011 or replace it with an inferior service, which is what my constituents fear?

We should be hearing about the improvements that are to be secured, but the Department is still considering the hare-brained idea of building a second runway at Gatwick airport, despite the Airports Commission having so decisively dismissed it, not least on the grounds of the inferiority of Gatwick’s surface transport links. There is no way that an expansion at Gatwick, involving a fourfold increase in passenger numbers, can be supported by the Brighton main line. That the proposition is still alive hardly promotes confidence in the Minister’s Department.

Commuters have lost confidence in train operating companies’ ability to deliver even a half-decent service, and the historically high and continually higher fares just rub salt into the wounds. A Redhill annual season ticket including zones 1 to 6 costs £1,100 more—47% more—than the same ticket from Coulsdon South, which is two stops up the line. Fares to and from London for stations on the Redhill route are significantly higher than those for equivalent stations in Surrey, even those outside Oyster zones, such as Oxted and Dorking. Even tickets from places further away from London, including Gatwick, Three Bridges and East Grinstead, are cheaper.

I repeat all of that to remind the Minister of the unfairness in the pricing structure, which she heard about when she met the Reigate, Redhill and District Rail Users Association in October. At that meeting, and in subsequent correspondence, we presented a reasonable proposal, supported by the borough council and London TravelWatch, to extend Transport for London zone 6 to stations to Gatwick, with a review on completion of the Thameslink works. Our case is both logical and affordable. The long overdue introduction of Oyster pay-as-you-go for trips to and from Gatwick airport and the installation of such technology at the stations on the short stretch of main line between Gatwick and the current Oyster boundary at Coulsdon South provides the opportunity for the Minister to extend zonal fares, ending the confusion that has arisen from the complicated fare structure on that stretch of railway.

Such measures to simplify and reduce fares have always shown a benefit of increased usage of about 4% to 5%. That happened when zonal fares were introduced in 2007 and when Oyster was introduced on the national rail network in 2010. Revenues have also held up following substantial fare reductions of up to 40% on some off-peak services, associated with the transfer of several London and Essex services to London Overground in May 2015. The expected increase in usage alone would recover most—or probably all, if not more, based on previous experience—of the approximately £6 million cost of introducing zone 6 to the stations at Redhill, Reigate, Merstham, Earlswood, Salfords and Horley. The total risk, if all of that is completely wrong, is less than 0.1% of the revenue stream in 2013-14.

Despite the case that was made to the Minister, she wrote to me on 16 December to turn down our proposal. It appears to the commuters I represent that she is proffering every assistance short of actual help, whether that is introducing zonal fares, direct reparations or an annual RPI minus a percentage change—something she has powers to do.

Why should my constituents be expected to pay a premium price for substandard services? Local rail users will find it incomprehensible that the Minister and her officials cannot even consider a fare reduction through zoning or otherwise. They will not understand why Dartford and Brentwood could be brought into Oyster zones last year, and why Stratford and other east London stations could be brought into financially better zones for commuters this year, when Redhill and surrounding stations cannot be considered.

Commuters using the Redhill and Reigate routes are fed up with being given excuses and the brush-off. They are suffering the double whammy of disproportionately more severe delays and disproportionately higher fares. They have asked me who is responsible, and I have so far ducked giving them a direct answer. Uncomfortably, however, it seems that the Minister and her Department are responsible for the management contract. That contract now gives her responsibility for the fare stream, which she receives directly. It has now been more than a year since the disaster following the London Bridge works last Christmas. I hope that she will not only explain who is responsible, but bring some relief on an issue that she can control directly, given her responsibility for the fare stream, while she also wrestles indirectly to improve the inadequate performance we have seen.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. May I wish you and the rest of the team in Westminster Hall a happy new year?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) on securing this important debate. He tempts me to comment on issues that are rather outside my brief, such as the runway decision, and I will resist that temptation. However, I am always happy and, indeed, anxious to discuss the performance on his line, and I am committed to doing that.

My hon. Friend has raised these issues repeatedly with me in correspondence and, most recently, in our meeting on 22 October. He has eloquently made his points about the need for clarity about who does what under the management contracts and about the need to ensure that his constituents get a reliable service.

I genuinely welcome the ongoing campaigning and activity of the Reigate, Redhill and District Rail Users Association, of which my hon. Friend is president. The campaigning and the information and analysis that the group has presented to me is truly excellent. That is exactly the sort of on-the-ground, forensic analysis we need to ensure that we get things right.

My hon. Friend pointed to the fundamental problem: over many decades, successive Governments ducked carrying out the improvement works that were needed at London Bridge station—the fourth busiest station in the country—and on the Brighton main line. It was this Government who finally took the decision to make those necessary investments as part of spending an unprecedented £38 billion on upgrading vital transport infrastructure across the country.

It is difficult—it would be fair to say that it is more difficult than the project team perhaps thought—to carry out such enormous improvement works on a vital functioning railway. There is always the choice whether to blockade the whole service for a time or to keep it running and to manage the timetable so that the improvements can be carried out.

Now that we have gone through the worst of the project—I am the first to admit that it has been very difficult for all the users of London Bridge station and particularly for Brighton main line commuters—the light is quickly emerging at the end of the tunnel. Half the new station will be open this year. There will be new trains, and they will serve the main line that commuters in my hon. Friend’s area connect with. We will start to see a steady improvement in services and the benefits that were the basis for all that investment. About £800 million is being invested in and around London Bridge alone.

As my hon. Friend will know, the Brighton main line, with which his loop connects, is one of the busiest lines in the country. In the last five years, the number of passengers on Thameslink has grown by 40%, while the number on the Southern network has grown by 32%. In a way, therefore, we have had a perfect storm of enormous and long-overdue investments to sort out creaking infrastructure; continued growth in passenger numbers; and a railway system that has, in some cases, struggled to cope.

My hon. Friend was right to allude to the series of completely unacceptable engineering overruns that happened last Christmas. I am sure that he, like me, welcomed the fact that this year, all the planned engineering work done right across the country, including at London Bridge, was completed on time, and that the railway was handed back to passengers. There were then several unacceptable points of disruption in the first week of service. We are investigating those, but Network Rail has, quite rightly, learned how to do these major pieces of infrastructure work and then to hand back the railway on time so that passengers can benefit.

My hon. Friend asked what was in it for his constituents and whether we can confirm that there will be new services. He is right to point out that the timetable has been squeezed to deal with all the pinch points on the network. In 2018—this will, of course, be subject to consultation—Redhill alone will have five extra trains to and from London in the morning and evening peaks. They will be new, state-of-the-art, longer trains, and there will be more capacity. At that point, I think we will be able to say that his constituents are getting the service they deserve. What we all want from that work is once again to make that part of the network a high-performance route, with improved trains, stations and performance.

My hon. Friend asked me repeatedly to talk about compensation. I have considered the issue extremely carefully. Having done some research over the holidays, I want to point out that Britain has one of the most generous compensation systems in the world for rail users. We already have in place compensation payout triggers that we do not see on any other network. The challenge for my hon. Friend’s constituents, whose average journey time is about 43 minutes, is that the compensation triggers come in after 30 minutes, which is not much use on a 43-minute journey. We need compensation that addresses the repeated short-term delays. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know—this is something the Conservative party committed to in its manifesto—that we are looking to introduce compensation payments from a 15-minute delay trigger point. That is something I would like to introduce very quickly, because my hon. Friend is right that we have to improve the compensation. The challenge is that it is really difficult to target a compensation package specifically at passengers using a particular station on what is a very open network. We have repeatedly looked at ways of doing that, but, so far, we have not found a way of targeting the compensation specifically.

My hon. Friend’s point about fares is absolutely right. That is why I am pleased that we were able to commit to an RPI plus 0% deal on fares for the remainder of this Parliament. For too long, commuters in the south and the south-east were seen as easy pickings—as a way to subsidise the overall railway operation, particularly for other franchises in the country that received a subsidy. That is completely wrong. The RPI plus 0% deal that we have put in place means that, on average, regulated and unregulated fares will go up by only 1.1% this year. That is worth about £750 million to commuters across the life of this Parliament. The average season ticket-holder will save £425 over the life of this Parliament and for the first time in a decade wage increases are outstripping rail fare increases—quite properly. We are listening and trying to do all we can to improve the fare structure and the deal for commuters.

My hon. Friend raised the point about extending Oyster zone 6 to Reigate and Redhill. I know that he knows quite how hard we have all worked to get the Gatwick extension proposal up and running. Indeed, that extension was opened yesterday and people can now buy a pay-as-you-go Oyster card at Gatwick and use it on the intermediate stations. He also knows that that is not the same as a zonal extension. It is difficult but possible to put the technology in place and there is a very small reduction in fares if people buy a pay-as-you-go Oyster card, but it is a much more complicated structure to rezone.

My hon. Friend mentioned some stations. I need to double-check. My understanding is that the fare changes, for example at Dartford, were almost de minimis when the zoning happened—very similar fares already applied. Rather than responding on a piecemeal basis to requests for rezoning, which may be very valid, I would like to look at this issue on the round. He will know from our conversations that we are supportive of a proposal to consider further changes regarding who does what between Transport for London and those with franchise contracts let by the Department. We are committed to devolution where it makes sense, and I am hopeful that we will be able to have a consultation and a conversation on that specific issue in the very near future. I also hope that he and those he represents will continue to lend their voices to that conversation. We want to do things right and make something work for the future.

My hon. Friend again raised his concerns about the disparity in fares between Redhill and Reigate services and East Grinstead and Oxted services. Again, his user group made some very clear points when we met. However, he will know that it was dear old British Rail that changed the whole basis upon which fares were calculated. Until 1968, fares were based on mileage, which was something we could all understand. Then they were changed for all sorts of reasons—frankly, the thinking of BR management at that time was about what the market could bear. We have ended up with discrepancies such as the ones he pointed out.

Although Redhill and Oxted are both about 20 miles from London, rail fares are no longer calculated on distance alone. That is why, rather than trying to manage some of these discrepancies, we have focused on the overall cap and capping the fare increases at RPI plus 0% over the duration of this Parliament. Fundamentally, however, if we had a train service that ran on time and did not have delays, the questions about compensation and fair fares would drop off.

Delivering performance on one of the most heavily congested lines when some of the most substantial engineering works in the country are being carried out is a real problem. My hon. Friend will know that performance on that route and indeed specifically on the Brighton main line has been in decline for several years. Passengers on that part of the network have not received the high-quality service that they deserve.

As my hon. Friend knows, that is why, since the election, I have set up and chaired a south-east quadrant taskforce, which for the first time brings together Network Rail, the operators and Transport Focus to thrash through these issues and to understand what is causing the problems—it is fair to say that most of the problems are infrastructure-related, but there are challenges around driver numbers and train reliability. Both those issues are reducing in terms of the level of disruption they are causing. People should remember that, when the franchise was let, the franchise holders inherited a very substantial driver shortage.

On the Southern and Gatwick Express line, I can tell my hon. Friend that, by looking at my charts, I can see that the headcount deficit for drivers will be cleared by May. In other words, there will be enough trained drivers out there driving trains so that the number of trains cancelled because of driver shortages will drop very substantially. The same is true regarding the new train fleet. As the new fleet comes into service up to 2018, the issues caused by fleet reliability will decline.

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I have had the frustration of being on a train that was cancelled because it did not have a driver, only to move to another train that could not move because it did not have a conductor, which is an entirely typical experience for the people I represent. My hon. Friend has given that promise about improvements by May. Can she say what there is within the contract to hold Govia Thameslink’s feet to the fire? If it does not deliver, when will it lose the franchise?

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I am quoting from the plan, which is baked into both the contract and the remedial plan that was put in place last year, when we were fervently of the view that the performance on the line was unacceptable. That is what the company is now being managed to in terms of driver delivery and the train roll-out. Slightly later—I am conscious of the time—I want to discuss with my hon. Friend what happens with the contracting process.

Fundamentally, we are trying to address the challenges: what is happening with the underlying infrastructure, drivers and train performance? By the way, I hope my hon. Friend and MPs from all parties on the route will attend the meeting with the head of franchising in my Department, the management team and Network Rail next Monday, 18 January, to hear the conversation. I want all that information out in the public domain and I want the commitments to be made very public.

What has happened since we let the contract? Clearly, there has been an unacceptable period of poor performance and we have notified the franchise holder that it was effectively in breach of its contract. The first stage is to come up with a remedial plan that sets out the measures that it will take, which is what I am referring to, particularly on the driver side.

The other question is on Network Rail because, as I have mentioned, most of the delays are related to infrastructure. My hon. Friend will know that Network Rail has been put on notice and has agreed a £4 million package of remedial works for the Brighton main line to address some of the more immediate performance issues.

My hon. Friend has invited me to set out a vision of what good looks like. The answer is that we have that information and we need to ensure that it can be delivered. What we want is a performance target that can be delivered. Subject to all those works, the new trains will roll out, which is what we are all striving for. That is what good looks like and what we are contracting for in 2018. If he comes to the meeting next Monday, we can further discuss what it looks like both for his line and right across this network.

My hon. Friend will see some very specific improvements to his local station in the next couple of years. We have committed to providing a £270 million, 12-car platform at Redhill station, so that we can get longer services on that line, and so that the Great Western Railway can increase its services on the north down lines linking Redhill and Reigate to Reading, accessing all the works that are going on through Crossrail and on to Heathrow. A series of other benefits come at that point.

Fundamentally, however, my hon. Friend invites me to say at what point we would take the franchise back. I would invite him to consider that we would remove the franchise only if we felt that the management team could not deliver. Having spent far more time down in the weeds of railway management than I ever intended to on that particular line, I have to assure him that I think everything is being done to address the performance issues, the driver shortages and the roll-out of new rolling stock. For the next 18 months, there will be a difficult period of performance. It does not need to be as difficult as it has been, and we are doing all we can to ensure that the new timetable delivers the sort of reliable service people want.

My hon. Friend mentioned one thing that I want to go away and investigate. If it is true that no peak evening train has arrived on time since last October, that will give me great cause of concern. I want to go away and look specifically at that particular timetable.

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I am very grateful to the Minister and I appreciate her giving away. I will have to present the case to her behalf to my constituents. The reason that I called for the debate in isolation from the wider line performance is about the proposal to zone the line down to Gatwick. Rather than simply a no, can she give me a full costed reason if the answer remains no, which I hope it does not? I need a full explanation to take back to the rail users to say exactly why she has come to that decision. I will be very happy to help her to do that.

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What I will tell my hon. Friend’s rail users is that the proposal to rezone and effectively to change the boundary between TfL and the franchising should be quite rightly looked at in the round, so that his constituents and others who are involved—this is an around-London issue—feel that the proposals have been properly worked up. What he can take back to his constituents is that they will shortly be asked for their opinions regarding a London-wide and suburb-wide series of proposals on devolution. I would expect that he and they will make their voices heard.

In conclusion, my hon. Friend is well aware of the constant level of concern that that railway causes. It is the biggest and busiest franchise. We look at performance measures. By the way, what I want to see is performance measures that focus on the people rather than the trains.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).